Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
by Margaret Atwood

House of Anansi Press, 2008. ISBN 0887848001.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 11/29/2008

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth arrives at an amazingly opportune time, when families are watching jobs and mortgages implode, corporations and communities are running out of credit, and the global economic system is undergoing a meltdown—all because of debt. It is, truly, payback time. And while Atwood's book was completed before the Credit Crash of August, 2008, readers will have that ongoing dramatic scenario fresh in their minds as they follow her investigations into the meaning of debt. "Like air," she says, "it's all around us, but we never think about it unless something goes wrong with the supply." Something has gone wrong, and it's time—past time—to give it some very serious thought. This is just what Atwood does, in a wry, witty, wonderful dance of ideas about debt and its importance in human cultures.

A word of caution for starters, though: if you're looking for suggestions for getting out of the debt mess you're in, you've come to the wrong book. Payback is not a how-to, or even a how-not-to. It is a how-we-got-here, a how-this-is, a how-to-think-about-it, an intellectual (sometimes maddeningly so) journey into the meaning of debt. Atwood examines debt as a metaphor for all our obligations to one another; debt and sin; debt as a literary subtext in everything from Mephistopheles and Vanity Fair to A Christmas Carol; unpaid and unpayable debt; and the "debtor/creditor twinship." When you stop to think about it (and you do stop, and you do think, under Atwood's spell), debt and credit underlie everything under our sun and beyond, even our redemptive and retributive notions of Heaven and Hell. "In Heaven," Atwood writes, "there are no debts—all have been paid, one way or another." Hell is a different story. It's an "infernal maxed-out credit card that multiples the charges endlessly."

You can read Atwood's book in many ways. As an illuminating companion to Jacob Needleman's Money and the Meaning of Life, for instance. Or as a cautionary tale about what happens when we borrow more—money, time, natural resources—than it is possible to repay. Or as a literary tour de force that celebrates the audacity of a gifted and agile wordsmith. Read it to be challenged, to be frustrated, perhaps even to be angered by some of the writer's glib simplifications, and to raise compelling questions. Don't read it for answers, because Atwood, like most poets, doesn't have them and doesn't really want them. In the end, in her reworking of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, all she has—all we have—are questions:

I don't really own anything, Scrooge thinks. Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I'm not really rich at all, I'm heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?

It is a question that many of us, these days, are hard-pressed to answer.

Margaret Atwood is the best-selling author of more than thirty-five books of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, winner of the Booker Prize and many other literary awards and honors. She lives in Toronto and on Pelee Island in Lake Erie. You can read a biography here and an interview here.

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